ASU men's tennis freshman gains valuable experience at Junior French Open

Max McKennon wrapped up his junior career in one of tennis's most prestigious events, learning from adverse conditions and the professionals around him

After extensive paperwork, several mandated COVID tests, a random COVID test by French authorities and a 24-hour quarantine in his hotel room, ASU men's tennis freshman Max McKennon competed alongside the top players in the world in the French Open boys' singles bracket last week.

McKennon, the No. 67 International Tennis Federation junior, was one of just four Americans represented in the tournament, which was delayed by four months due to COVID-19. 

He was the only American currently committed to playing college tennis, making him stand out in a field where college tennis can often be an afterthought. 

“It was pretty cool, just wearing my ASU stuff around,” McKennon said. “People asking me how it is and getting my thoughts.”

McKennon fell in the first round of the tournament 6-4, 6-2 to Martin Breysach, a French native and a top 20 ITF junior. 

Breysach was the more experienced player on clay, having grown up in France, where the surface is much more common. He entered the tournament with a previous Junior French Open appearance and over twice as many career ITF matches on clay as McKennon under his belt.

McKennon was also up against difficult conditions, facing unusual cold, rainy and windy weather that plagued the tournament and made the court play slower. Those adverse conditions were amplified by the change from Babolat balls to heavier Wilson balls this year, which McKennon said were a hot topic of discussion among the players.

“It's tough for him, playing a French kid who's hit on those courts year-round for the last few years, in those conditions,” McKennon’s coach Carsten Ball said. 

Despite the challenges, McKennon said he felt he held up well in his first junior major appearance.

“I felt like mentally, I was pretty strong,” McKennon said. “Just never really letting up, always kind of hanging in there and staying in the match.”

Ball said competing in a junior major is crucial for McKennon’s development, as every young player has to “get their butt kicked” in the biggest spots to improve. 

“Most of these matches with these kids come down to a single moment or two, or a point or two, and it's kind of what happens on those points (that decides the outcome),” Ball said. “It's not about forehands and backhands with these kids. It’s about trying to play the right tennis in the right situation.”

ASU men’s tennis coach Matt Hill said the conditions, in particular, also presented an important learning opportunity for McKennon. 

“As he matures and gets more experienced as a player, he's gonna learn that there's always some adjustments that need to be made,” Hill said. “His ability to navigate those different adversities that get thrown at him is really a key differentiator, typically, in who wins the match.”

Yet McKennon didn’t just learn on the court — he also observed the habits of the top professionals who he was surrounded by, taking particular note of their efficiency in practice. 

“They're very professional in how they do things — very intense,” McKennon said. “If I can take away a couple things that they do and copy what they do, I feel like that would definitely help for the long run.”

Ball said he hopes the experience also helped humanize the professionals for McKennon. 

“They're just tennis players as well,” Ball said. “There's no magic potion; no scientific formula.”

In gaining that valuable perspective, McKennon also concluded his highly successful junior career that began 15 years ago as he moves on to college tennis. 

“It was a bit bittersweet,” McKennon said. “I'm going to miss it a little bit. But also, I'm really looking forward to the next chapter.”

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